Sex, Money & Housework: After 6,000 Interviews, Two Professors Issue a State-of-Mating Report

Most suspicion of infidelity is justified. Working wives make their husbands more ambitious. Gay men are happier at work if they are open about their sexual preference. These are a few of the findings in an exhaustive study just published called American Couples (Morrow, $19.95) by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz. The authors, both sociology professors at the University of Washington, used interviews and questionnaires to discern the attitudes of some 6,000 couples—marrieds, cohabiters and gays—and spent six years compiling the report. Their findings amount to something of a Kinsey report on couples, but they deal with work and money as well as sex. Correspondent Carl Arrington, a veteran of nine years of marriage, debriefed the authors on the hazards and rewards that await American couples.

Is marriage as an institution threatened?

Blumstein: Marriage, though problematic, is certainly alive and well because of the unique things it has that no other kind of couple relationship has. Marriage provides a lot of strengthening features, like community encouragement, for people who want to stay together permanently.

Schwartz: People still think marriage is so wonderful they will keep trying even when they have failed.

How have Americans embraced the sexual revolution?

Blumstein: The real part of the sexual revolution is the legitimacy of women having pleasure in sexuality and the increase in premarital intercourse. It also raised expectations. People are reading about simultaneous orgasms and wanting to have them.

Who is having sex and how often?

Blumstein: Cohabiters are a little bit “sexier” than married couples as far as frequency is concerned. But about two-thirds of married couples are still having sex at least once a week even after 10 years. That seems to put the lie to the notion that marriage kills sex. Gay male couples have sex more frequently than married couples for the initial 10 years, but after that the gays have less. Lesbians, regardless of how long they have been together, have a much lower sexual frequency than any other group.

What do men want sexually?

Blumstein: Men enjoy intercourse, but they place a premium on variety, meaning intercourse in different positions and, more specifically, oral sex. The interesting thing is that both giving and receiving oral sex is important to men. They also have higher needs for frequency of genital sex.

What do women want sexually?

Blumstein: Intercourse is very important to women’s satisfaction. First, they feel it is important to their men and also it is very intimate. People are usually face-to-face, they can talk and it is reciprocal. In general, the nongenital forms of intimacy, such as kissing, touching, holding and cuddling, are more important to women than men.

Who holds the balance of power in the bedroom?

Schwartz: In most heterosexual couples, the man initiates sex and the woman acts by accepting or refusing, though there is a sizable minority in which the roles are shared equally.

How significant is housework in a relationship?

Blumstein: First, there are a lot more modern couples who agree that housework should be shared than who really do share it equally. Housework still mostly falls to women, and that is a fact of life—even when the husband is unemployed and the woman is working. Furthermore, men are less likely to feel good about their marriage if they do a lot of housework.

Does earning power influence the balance of power in a two-income couple?

Schwartz: Yes, money is power. In a heterosexual relationship, the more money a woman makes the more clout she is going to get in decisions about their lives.

How important is physical appearance in a relationship?

Blumstein: We were surprised that it remains so important beyond the courtship phase. Husbands who found their partner attractive rated themselves as having a better sex life.

Schwartz: Women who were either rated by their husbands or themselves as being attractive were more likely to enjoy a more varied sex life. By that I mean sex other than intercourse in the missionary position.

How widespread is marital infidelity?

Blumstein: After 10 years of marriage about one-third of the husbands and about one-fourth of the wives have had sex outside of marriage.

How does religion affect couples?

Schwartz: We found that churchgoers have a lower divorce rate, but no indication that they are any more likely to be monogamous than nonchurchgoers. However, they do have strong feelings in support of monogamy.

Is living together becoming as much an institution as matrimony?

Schwartz: No, it doesn’t have the framework to become an institution. It has mixed meanings. For some, cohabitation is trial marriage and for others, the antithesis of marriage. Cohabiting couples are loath to have children because of social sanctions.

What is one of the most significant misconceptions your study revealed?

Schwartz: Whether you are male or female determines how you act in a relationship rather than whether you are gay or hetero.

In what significant ways do gay couples relate differently from heterosexuals?

Blumstein: With regard to money, gays are much more like cohabiters than married couples because they have no legal demands to share property—or legal protection. When gays finally decide to pool their money, that is about the closest thing they have to a declaration of marriage.

Has AIDS affected the often nonmonogamous sex lives of male gay couples?

Blumstein: We had members of gay couples tell us, “Bringing home a killer to myself is one thing, bringing it home to this person I love is something else.”

Why are the traditional gender roles so hard to get rid of?

Blumstein: All of family life as we know it reflects the simple historical fact that hundreds of years ago we developed the pattern where one person stayed home and the other person went out and worked. All differences in attitudes about work, sex and power flow from that. The furor in the past 15 years is people wondering why those historical roles shouldn’t change or overlap.

How do women and men want each other to be different?

Schwartz: Women want men to be more expressive, and apart from kissing and cuddling more, want them to talk for real communication and not just problem solving.

Blumstein: Men’s wants are not extraordinary because women have been so much of what they wanted all along.

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